Feb 29

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal

Having read the Harry Potter series right before visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure I was really excited; but sadly, the Wizarding World was missing some magic.  

Visually, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was fabulous.  Great care was taken to make you feel like you were in Hogsmead and walking to Hogwarts.  There were no wide expansive walkways like you would find in an amusement park, Hogsmead was tight and cramped like you might find in a real British town.  The shop windows exhibited items Harry might have seen walking in Hogsmead, or items you would recognize from the books.  It was a nice tribute to the books.  Annoying, but great, was the screaming mandrake and Moaning Myrtle as you entered the ladies room.  

The Three Brooksticks is the restaurant for this area of the park and it had a unique menu, not your typical amusement park fare, but British Pub fare.  I was a bit skeptical when I saw the menu but the chicken was tasty, and the grilled potatoes were mouth watering.  The best fast food I’ve had at an amusement park.  

The Forbidden Journey was a great ride, but this was where I started to notice problems. The locker area was really crowded and we were there for park opening on a relatively quiet day.  I can’t begin to imagine what that place would be like on a busy day.  But once we went through the queue, which was FABULOUS, I noticed more issues.  There are two ways through the queue, one for people riding the ride the other for people who want to walk through.  However, they do not advertise the walk through so everyone was trying to take pictures as they walked through the queue, I spent more time waiting for people to take pictures then for the actual line to move.  The staff there occasionally yelled for people to keep moving, which didn’t add to the ambiance, nor did they inform people that they could walk through after the ride.  The ride was pretty cool, a cross between Spiderman and Soarin, but with a Harry Potter theme. Though I have to say, some of the stuff in it I didn’t remember from the books or movies, hmmm.

Flight of the Hippogriff was a nice kids roller coaster; but, the only special thing about it was that you could see Hagrid’s Hut from it.  I didn’t ride Dragon Challenge (formerly known as Dueling Dragons) because my brain was scrambled from when I had rode Hulk earlier in the day.  

Yes, the Butterbeer was good

One issue I have with the whole Islands of Adventure Park is that the rides are very intense. My friend has back problems and rode 1 ride the whole day – The Cat In the Hat and even that was overly intense for a children’s ride.  If you have any physical restrictions keeping you from rides then you need to know you may not be able to ride ANY rides at this park.  

Ollivanders was one of the best experiences I had at the park.  Ollivander chose a wizarding aged child and a wand chooses them.  I’ll let you see the show yourself, but the girl who was chosen genuinely seemed to have a great time.  Of course if you don’t want to wait an hour for that you can just go into the store from the other entrance.  

I saw 2 shows while there, one was the Triwizard Spirit Rally featuring the wizards of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang.  This show was pretty good, a reenactment of there entrance during Goblet of Fire.  But the Frog Choir was plain old weird!  I would have left but I was sitting in the front. 

The staff assigned to the area were hit and miss.  Some were great, like the Hogwarts Express conductor, I saw him a couple times and he was always in character.  But other people acted like it was just a job, that took away from the atmosphere.  This was the biggest disappointment since it really took away from the experience.  

The shops were very busy (especially Filch’s Emporium), small and lacking in merchandise. If you just wanted T-shirts, a broom, a snitch or a stuffed something or other (I’m a fan of Fluffy) then you were fine.  Outside of that, the merchandise was a little weak.  You could by from a decent selection of wands, but even that seemed a little limited.  Forget any jewelry type of stuff or cell phone cases.  I had seen a lot of things on the WB website, a lot of it was not available at the park.  Actually, you could buy the same exact stuff at the airport or the shop at City Walk.  

For those planning a trip I think visiting this area of the park would be best either early or late in the day, mid day seems to get most crowded.  

I would like to mention that I did write a letter to Universal with my thoughts about what was good and bad.  Mike called me 3 times, he really wanted to speak to me personally about my letter and let me know that it was being passed on.  Whether things will change, I don’t know, but Mike seemed to really care about what I said.  

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Feb 22

Dining in Walt Disney World

On my December trip I tried a few new restaurants at Disney – here’s the run down:

Via Napoli – I went here as part of the Candlelight Processional Dinner Package so based on a pure price standpoint, it was overpriced.  But I paid for seating at the Candlelight Processional too.  The food was very good.  My friend and I both had Pizza and the tomato and mozzarella appetizer.  The server was cute, actually they all were.  This place has good food but even better eye candy.

Hollywood Brown Derby – This is a pricey restaurant at the Hollywood Studios, but it had a nice atmosphere since it replicated the Brown Derby in Hollywood.  The food here is fabulous.  I split a salad with my friend and it was the perfect size and delicious and the pork was the best pork I’ve ever had in my life.  I didn’t care for the grapefruit cake though.  My server was also excellent, making this a great dining experience.

The Plaza – Located in the Magic Kingdom, but a bit hidden from view just off Main Street was underwhelming.  While the prices were some of the most reasonable I paid in Disney World, the food was no better then I found in quick service places and my waitress was barely average.  I’ve heard good things about The Plaza, but I don’t plan to go back anytime soon.

Portobello – Located in Downtown Disney I thought was was good, but not great Italian food.  Living near NYC I know good Italian food and this was just ok.  I think if you’re used to Olive Garden or other chain Italian you’ll enjoy the food here.  But if you’re picky about your Italian then you should probably skip eating Italian in  Disney World.

Coral Reef – Located in Epcot and set back a bit from the action this restaurant is hard to find if you arne’t looking for it.  Yet it’s a busy place.  The theme is that you’re eating under the sea in a coral reef, the entertainment here are the fish in the tanks that line one wall of the resturant.  The food here was very good, my friend and I both had steaks (yes, we had steak in a seafood restaurant).  The food was tasty and the wait staff good. 

Captains Grille – Located at Yacht Club this was an accidental meal, our last lunch in Disney World.  My friend is allergic to crab and when she asked for her burger without crab meat on it the waitress insisted on having the chef come out.  The chef was really nice and made our burgers to order, they were the best burgers we had on-property. 

Chef Mickeys – A buffet located at The Contemporary Resort featuring the Fab 5 (Mickey, Minni, Donald, Goofy and Pluto).  I’ve eaten here before and had a pretty similar expereience.  The buffet is ok and the character interaction great.  If you want to see the Fab 5 this is a great option, if you want good food I would choose a different restaurant.

Cinderella’s Royal Table – My friend and I choose this for the venue and the chance to meet the princesses.  A good but expensive breakfast, the venue and the characters are what make this worth the price tag.  When you enter you get a photo (included in the price) with Cinderella and then princesses come around during the meal for photos, we met Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and Ariel.  Our waiter was very good and friendly.  The character interaction was a little weird, I’m not used to interacting with face characters and I’m not sure I was a fan of it.  But the girls all did a nice job.  It was a fun once or twice in a lifetime experience.

Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter: Travelingiraffe

Feb 15

Ancient Rome

I’ve been to Rome, I saw the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and Piazza Navona.  On my Mediterranean Cruise it was time to dig deeper (pun intended), I decided to go inside the Colosseum and into The Roman Forum. 

For tickets I suggest getting them anywhere except the Colosseum, the line was extremely long.  I got mine from the pushy lady at the visitors kiosk in Civitavecchia.  The line at The Forum was long, but not nearly as insane as at the Colosseum.  But there were also 4 ships in port that day bringing somewhere around 10,000 extra visitors to the city. 

I opted not to do any sort of tour of the Colosseum, while I’m sure I missed some because of it, I also didn’t feel like I missed a real lot.  If you’re not going to do a tour I would suggest reading up a bit on the Colosseum before hand.  I didn’t find there was much information provided inside the Colosseum.  But the walk through the Colosseum was worth it, the inside was just cool.  You could walk through several layers and see the different view, though I never did figure out where the box seats of the day would have been. 

I’ve heard rumors that they are going to cover the underground area of the Colosseum, it’s above ground now but was underground when the Colosseum was in use.  Then they will offer tours of the underground section.  A small portion was covered when I went, leading me to believe the process has begun.  If that’s the case, I think it takes away one of the reason to go inside the Colosseum.   Looking at the underground tunnels is a key component of the Colosseum.

I also did not do a tour of The Forum and I wonder if I should have.  I honestly thought it was a bit boring.  There were more signs here then there had been at the Colosseum, so there was some information available here.  But most of the area seemed like park land where you couldn’t go on the grass.  

Inside the Roman Forum

I would suggest skipping The Forum in favor of some of the other interesting sites in Rome, but I do think the Colosseum is worth entry if you have more then a day or two in Rome.  The outside of the Colosseum is impressive in its own right, but with so much history in Rome it’s hard to prioritize visiting the inside of the Colosseum if you’re only there for one day.   

Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter: Travelingiraffe

Feb 10

Travel Tip – Bring copies

Whenever I travel I like to bring copies of all of my important documents – drivers license, passport, visa’s, reservations, and credit card information.  I also keep an electronic copy of all these documents and give photo copies and electronic copies to a member of my family.

When I travel domestically I’m less likely to do this, mostly because I’m lazy.  But, I always do this when I’m traveling internationally.  While I’ve never had a problem, I like knowing that if I’m away and lose any of this information I can easily access it to make police reports and to obtain new documents.  I like having a variety of ways to get this information too.  If my suitcase gets lost and the photo copies were in there, then I can just go to my email account and print out new copies.

So my tip this week is to have copies of all your important documents.

Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter: Travelingiraffe

Feb 03

Travel Tip – Bring Contact Information

So on my last trip to Disney World I was meeting my friend Terye at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort (I’ll be posting about the resort in a week or two).  I was flying in that day and she was driving over from Tampa.  When I got to the resort I went to pull up Terye’s information for check in and it was NOT in my phone, ACK!

I had recently fixed an error in my phone book and her phone number and address got lost.  I had thought to double check, but thought I had checked it already, apparently not.

I did get in contact with Terye through Facebook and email and she called me, so it worked out.  But my tip is that if you’re supposed to be meeting someone on your trip, double and triple check that you have their information.

Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter: Travelingiraffe

Jan 27

Website Recommendation: Visa Stamper

Visa Stamper is a website where you can recreate your passport(s).  It’s a fun little site that is still in Beta. 

What you do is set up an account and add in all your stamps from you passport, the website then recreats the pages for you to view online.  You can even add stamps for locations you went to, but didn’t get a stamp for.

The site is still in Beta and could use a little work to make it better, such as differentiating between a land and an air entry or adding visas.  But, it does its simple functions well and all the stamps that I have matched the ones that were shown. 


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Jan 25

Livorno Ship Tour: Pisa and A Taste Of Tuscany

When my cruise on the Norwegian Epic stopped in Livorno I decided to do the tour called: Pisa and A Taste of Tuscany.  Although the port of Livorno is primarily known for servicing Florence, Florence is actually an hour to two from the port.  Having been to Florence previously I decided to do something different. Pisa and Tuscany!

This is one of those big group tours from the cruise line and when I say big group I mean that there were multiple busses doing the same tour, so we’re talking about over 200 people on this tour.  But, compared to some other big bus tours I have taken, this one didn’t feel quite as heardy or touristy as I’ve experienced in the past.

We had an early meeting in a dining room, though not nearly as early as some of the other tours that left the ship this day, 8:30 am.  Sailing alone I had hoped to meet some people on excursions, it turned out I had already met several people who were on my tour and was on a bus with 3 of them.

The first part of the tour went to Pisa, on the way our tour guide spoke about the region of Tuscany. Once we arrived we parked in a bus parking area we took a 5-10 minute walk to the tower and then got some information about the leaning tower and the other buildings.  Then we got some free time, I think we had an hour before our meeting time, plenty of time to take photos and do some shopping or have a drink at one of the local street vendors.  I will talk about the Pisa in the next few weeks, but I will say that if you got rid of the hordes of tourists, this would be a nice place to visit.

After Pisa we went to a winery for a tour and lunch.  This winery had a stunning setting – it had that old, fancy farm feel and was nestled within the surrounding hills.  We got a quick tour, which was just fine with me since I’ve been on winery tours in the past.  If you want an in-depth tour of a winery, this is not it. Though the staff was very friendly and answered any questions asked.  We also learned a little bit about making olive oil.

After that we had lunch, lunch was served in tents outside, which we had perfect weather for.  There were some smaller tents (see the photos) that were heavenly.  However, we were in a much larger tent that fit several busses of guests.  This was a nice setting, but not as dreamy as the smaller tents. But the food was fabulous and we were given suggestions on which wines to drink with each course.  I personally didn’t like any of the wines, they were too dry for me.  But, they had the best balsamic vinegar ever! The olive oil was also very good. We were given the opportunity to purchase the olive oil and vinegar as well as a few other items. The lunch was a couple different courses of light foods – pasta, meats, breads.

After that we returned to the ship with a little time to enjoy the ship before all the full day tours returned to the ship.  This tour only took about 5 and a half to 6 hours.  I thought it was a very nice tour for anyone who wants to have an experience other then Florence.  While I do try to avoid some of the big group tours, they tend to have a much less authentic feel, this was one of the better big group tours I have taken with a cruise line.  It also allowed me to save my energy for the next day in Rome!

Don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter: Travelingiraffe